Marine Debris Curriculum Materials

The discovery of accumulations of human-generated trash in the ocean (e.g., “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“) has generated questions about the sources and effects of marine debris. Where is ocean debris (especially plastics) coming from? What happens to the debris once it reaches the water? How do plastics affect marine ecosystems and sea life?

The study of marine debris integrates topics in physics, biology, and chemistry. CAMEOS fellows have developed an environmental science curriculum that explores the sources and effects of marine debris through guided inquiry activities and research projects. Debris enters the ocean with terrestrial runoff, as well as by direct dumping of trash into the sea, making the debris that students find on their campuses directly relevant to the debris found in the ocean. By studying marine debris on their campus, students learn about the scientific process and data collection techniques while discussing current conservation issues that are relevant to coastal communities.

CAMEOS fellows use an inland, to coast, to ocean approach to guide students through the study of marine debris. First, students collect data on debris found inland on school campuses, near creeks and streams, and at the coast using established scientific survey methods. They sort the debris they collect in the classroom and visualize it using Microsoft Excel. Fellows then present students with long-term California Coastal Conservancy data from the annual Coastal Cleanup Day to compare to the campus debris data. Lastly, with support from Oikonos, fellows bring albatross boluses collected at Kure and Midway Islands into the classrooms for dissection. Albatross often mistake trash for prey items, and when they go through the normal process of regurgitating indigestible prey parts (such as squid beaks) in pellets called “boluses,” they also regurgitate a lot of marine debris. Students get to see firsthand what these birds are ingesting when they forage in the open ocean.

Fellows have developed two versions of the Marine Debris curriculum. Both have guidelines and activities for campus debris collections that teach basic data collection and analysis techniques. “Environmental Science and Data Analysis” is a more general overview of the marine debris issue, combining oceanography, ecology, and toxicology. “Ecotoxicology and Data Analysis” is a more specialized curriculum that focuses on animal physiology and the toxicology of marine debris plastics ingested by ocean animals. This curriculum was published in the American Biology Teacher. You can find activities for both versions here, as well as additional internet and scientific literature resources:


  1. Environmental Science and Data Analysis

  2. Ecotoxicology and Data Analysis

  3. Additional Resources

Related Links

  1. Oikonos
  2. Inside the Plastic Vortex
  3. Litter in the Ocean
  4. Marine Debris Found in Fish
  5. Midway Journey
  6. NOAA Marine Debris Program
  7. The Problem With Marine Debris,
  8. The Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea Project
  9. The "plastic plague" chapter of Nat'l Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth
  10. SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography- SEAPLEX: Seeking the Science of the Garbage Patch
  11. Wake Forest University Albatross Project

Selected Scientific References

  1. Lindsay C. Young, Cynthia Vanderlip, David C. Duffy, Vsevolod Afanasyev, & Scott A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing Home the Trash: Do Colony-Based Differences in Foraging Distribution Lead to Increased Plastic Ingestion in Laysan Albatrosses? PLoS ONE ( 4 (10), e7623, 1-9.
  2. Marie Y. Azzarello & Edward S. Van Vleet. 1987. Marine birds and plastic pollution. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 37, 295-303.
  3. David K. A. Barnes. 2005. Remote islands reveal rapid rise of southern hemisphere, sea debris. The Scientific World Journal 5, 915–921.
  4. Fernanda I. Colabuono, Viviane Barquete, Beatriz S. Domingues, & Rosalinda C. Montone. 2009. Plastic ingestion by Procellariiformes in Southern Brazil. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58, 93–96.
  5. Patricia L. Corcoran , Mark C. Biesinger, & Meriem Grifi. 2009. Plastics and beaches: a degrading relationship. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58, 80–84.
  6. Ana Carolina Oliveira de Meirelles & Helen Maria Duarte do Rego Barros. 2007. Plastic debris ingested by a rough-toothed dolphin, Steno bredanensis, stranded alive in northeastern Brazil. Biotemas 20 (1), 127-131.
  7. Heidi J. Auman, James P. Ludwig, John P. Giesy & Theo Colborn. 1997. Plastic ingestion by Laysan Albatross chicks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, in 1994 and 1995. In Albatross Biology and Conservation, 239-44.
  8. Paul R. Sievert & Louis Sileo. 1993. The effects of ingested plastic on growth and survival of albatross chicks. In Vermeer, K.; Briggs, K.T.; Morgan, K.H.; Siegel-Causey, D. (eds.). The Status, Ecology, and Conservation of Marine Birds of the North Pacific. Can. Wildl. Serv. Spec. Publ., Ottawa.
  9. Edward J. Carpenter & K. L. Smith, Jr. 1972.Plastics on the Sargasso Sea surface. Science, New Series 175 (4027), 1240-1241.
  10. Arda M. Tonay, Ayhan Dede, Ayaka A. Öztürk & Bayram Öztürk. 2007. Stomach content of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) from western Black Sea in spring and early summer. Rapp. Comm. int. Mer Médit. 38, 616.
  11. Shelly L. Moore, Dominic Gregorio, Michael Carreon, Stephen B. Weisberg, & Molly K. Leecaster. 2001. Composition and distribution of beach debris in Orange County, California. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42 (3), 241-245.
  12. D. W. Laist. 1997. Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In J.M. Coe and D.B. Rogers (eds.), Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions. Springer-Verlag. New York, NY.
  13. Shelly L. Moore & M. James Allen. 2000. Distribution of anthropogenic and natural debris on the mainland shelf of the Southern California Bight. Marine Pollution Bulletin 40(1), 83-88.
  14. Charles J. Moore, Shelly L. Moore, Molly K. Leecaster, & Stephen B. Weisberg. 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42, 1297-1300.

Funding for CAMEOS is provided by the National Science Foundation's GK-12 Program